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Local techpreneurs bring virtual reality to Kenya

Brian Afande and his business partner established a virtual reality firm in 2015 and are training young people interested in the field for free

After six horrific hours in the face of death at the Westgate terror attack in September 2013, Brian Afande walked out of the nightmare shaken, but physically unscathed. This inspired him to change his life, leading to the birth of  Black Rhino VR, a virtual reality (VR) company.

“When I came out alive after seeing people die around me that day, I knew God was real and I had survived for a reason.  I swore to live life by going for the things I planned on doing.

I wanted to start my own business, get married and have children. The first thing I did was to resign from my job,” he says. At that time, he was the brand manager of Converse, a shoe company. “I’m now married, I have a child and a running business,” he says.

Afande is so enamoured with VR.  His expansive knowledge and understanding of the technology is astounding, yet he didn’t train in it. He studied computer hardware and software networking and engineering, but got bored with it. 

“I did a bridging course at the University of Nairobi, but dropped out because it was too expensive. I have a background in media and used to host a TV and radio show. My training is in marketing and brand management,” he says. 

His business partner Michael Ilako, a film director, gave up on medical school in his fourth year, despite topping the class, to venture into his passion. They had known each other for a while, but met up in 2015 to officially establish Black Rhino VR. 

They wanted their business to leverage on technology, but didn’t know how to go about it. Since the duo is spiritual, they chose to pray about it. It was then that Facebook acquired Oculus, a VR company for Sh201 billion (US$2 billion); they knew there was something good about the technology.

They went into research on virtual reality technology, which they soon realised they could do since they were already creating 360 videos. Afande and his partner went into VR content production after creating a powerful machine that could withstand the intensity of VR videos. They called it the Beast, whose current street value stands at Sh500,000.

“We had to build a gaming machine to edit content. We didn’t have enough money to buy a gaming rig, so we started shipping in components of the machine; a powerful motherboard, a graphics card, power supply unit, RAM, SD RAM, chasis and processor. The only thing we bought in Kenya was the case,” says Afande.

Once they had everything they needed, they opened five YouTube tutorials and followed every step until they finally created the Beast. “We were so proud of ourselves.

We had a good time making the machine. People usually forget that you also need to have fun when you are in business. They say the fortune is not in making a million dollars, but in the journey,” Afande beams.

The beast is efficiently functioning at a very high processing speed and does not require upgrades. Afande and his partner are working on building a similar rig. Its processing speed is 10 times more than that of a normal computer.

The Beast works with a developer’s kit from Oculus called the Oculus BK2, a headset that you wear to look at content that has been edited to see if there are any editing errors.

Black Rhino VR produced VR future content for Safaricom. The experience immerses you into the telecommunications network’s future of cash-less payment, home automation and education technology, which shows where it’s going in terms of innovation and technology.

Getting into virtual reality and creating a video editing Beast was not their end game. Black Rhino VR is curating an ecosystem of young VR developers through Moran Storylab, a free school that they are building to empower the youth.

“We will enrol young people, a lot of whom are interested, into the school to teach them how to earn a living through virtual reality. Black Rhino VR has also established a non-profit organisation called VR Without Borders. Through this, they will offer palliative treatment to patients in hospitals at a zero-fee.

“Let’s say you’re in a hospice in your last days and you’d like to experience something different through VR. We’d like to give such people international experiences collected from different parts of the world.

This immersive experiences of another world will be a fusion of calming music coupled with images, videos and graphics that were probably on their bucket list,” Afande says.  They have worked on high-profile jobs in Congo, Angola and Zimbabwe.

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